FP1: Hamilton fastest as Mercedes take early advantage at Paul Ricard
As the drivers took their first laps in anger on the Circuit Paul Ricard, it was Lewis Hamilton who had the upper hand early doors in France, finishing Free Practice 1 fastest as many of the drivers suffered spins while getting dialled into the track.
After two disappointing performances in Monaco and Canada, Hamilton – powered by a fresh Mercedes engine – delivered a timely reminder of his ability with an impressive 1m 32.273s, closely followed by Valtteri Bottas who was just 0.14s behind his team mate.
It was Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo who was the Silver Arrows’ closest challenger, the Australian under three-tenths of a second behind the pacesetter. His team mate Max Verstappen was confined to the garage for a major chunk of the session with technical issues with his RB14, and had to settle for seventh.
As for Ferrari, they tend to start Grand Prix weekends quietly, and it was the same story here at the Paul Ricard circuit. Kimi Raikkonen was the leading Prancing Horse in fourth, 0.772s behind Hamilton, with championship leader Sebastian Vettel in fifth.
The windy conditions in Le Castellet proved tricky for the teams, who were using this session to get to grips with a circuit that last hosted a Grand Prix in 1990. There were plenty of spins early on and the session then ended three minutes early when Marcus Ericsson lost the rear at Turn 11, his Sauber hitting the safety barriers and catching fire. Fortunately the Swede escaped unharmed, although it remains to be seen if his car will be repaired in time for FP2.
Behind the top three teams, the award for ‘best of the rest’ went to Haas, and the home support would have been delighted to see local hero Romain Grosjean leading the charge for the American team. The Frenchman came home sixth and his team mate Kevin Magnussen finished P10.
Another home favourite to impress in this first 90 minutes of running was Pierre Gasly, with the Toro Rosso driver grabbing eighth. His team mate Brendon Hartley, however, didn’t have as much luck. The New Zealander was the first to fall foul of the notorious Turn 6, and he ultimately finished 15th.
One driver who will be keen to make amends this weekend is Sergio Perez, who endured a tough Canadian GP. It was a bright start from the Mexican on Friday morning, bringing home P9 for Force India as his French team mate Esteban Ocon finished three places further back.
Renault, taking part in their home Grand Prix, enjoyed a low-key morning session. Carlos Sainz was the leading R.S.18 in 11th, though Nico Hulkenberg was surprisingly all the way down in P18. Sauber also suffered a similarly hit-and-miss FP1. Despite spinning on-track twice, Charles Leclerc produced another fine performance to finish 13th. His team mate Ericsson was only one spot behind, before his crash and fire ended his first segment on a sour note.
The bottom two teams, McLaren and Williams, will want to put this session behind them. Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were in 16th and 19th for the former, while 17th-placed Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin, who finished bottom of the pile, endured another underwhelming practice for the latter.
With the tailwind causing issues for most teams, expect FP2 to be a similar story of spins…